Tobacco farming still goes on, despite anti-smoking campaigns.

Op-Ed: The war on tobacco is just making criminals rich

Sydney - Prohibition of any kind simply does not work. The original Prohibition on liquor didn’t work. The War on Drugs was lost. The prohibition by pricing of tobacco has handed billions of dollars to organized crime.


The tobacco black market is booming thanks to incredible retail prices. In Australia, you can pay $265 for an 8x25 pack of smokes. The rest of the world is pretty much the same.

It doesn’t take a genius, or a fence post, to see that the billions of dollars of sales in black market tobacco are the result. At nearly $50 per pack, anyone will be happy to pay $10. I’ve seen boxes of 100 cigarettes for $10.

Guess who’s making the money. Yep, organized crime. The instant solution whenever you want something cheaper. Apparently not content with making billions for criminal organizations with drugs, governments seem obsessed with finding new sources of income for them.

Organized crime can ship drugs, weapons, and people anywhere on Earth. Why not tobacco? Was this very likely outcome ever considered? If not, why not? Every other banning of anything has gone wrong; why wouldn’t this one?

How did it go so wrong?

The method of trying to get people to quit anything is usually the problem. The sledgehammer approach didn’t work in the 1920s trying to ban alcohol, either. Liquor was illegal, and it was never more popular. It was the fashion. In the 1960s, the people who were in favour of the Vietnam War were also anti-drugs. The message sent was the exact opposite of the message received.

With tobacco, it’s been even less subtle. Raising prices isn’t subtle. Telling people to spend so much money to get what they want just gets them looking for cheaper options. Some tobacco is now 5 times the price it was in 2005. No-brainer that people won’t pay such a massive increase gladly, if at all. So they don’t. This is Prohibition version Whatever.

Achieving nothing at great expense

It’s debatable exactly how successful this approach has been to getting people to give up smoking, too. Tobacconists aren’t going out of business. Someone must be buying enough to keep them open. So even the basic idea of higher prices obviously isn’t working the way they thought it would.

The cost of the anti-tobacco programs, backed up by the plain packaging costs, enforcement, etc. can’t be working, either. Huge amounts of money have gone into making criminals rich and the actual numbers of smokers are very vague. Numbers are quoted, sure, but I can walk down the street and see plenty of packs and butts for kilometres. I also see a pretty respectable population of non-plain packs, imports. It ISN’T working.

The type of enforcement is the same as for illegal drugs. Busts, shipments seized, and so on, and the tobacco supply obviously isn’t even dented. The courts will get some more cases, the jails will get some more people, and the War on Drugs will be lost again.

OK, so what would be a good outcome?

One of the big problems with tobacco is the sheer number of additives. Some tailormade cigarettes use petroleum products to make them burn better for example. A long list of chemicals from cultivation seem to make their way into the smokes, too. No other product would be allowed on the market with a mix of herbicides, arsenic, lead, and similar fun things.

(As a horticulturalist, I can tell you that you don’t need any of this crap in any grown product. Least of all do you need insecticides in a product loaded with nicotinic acid, which is an actual insecticide.)

Now, if you follow the logic:

1. The encyclopaedia of chemistry in those cigarettes is more likely to be dangerous than the tobacco itself. Oxidized arsenic can’t be good for you, for example.

2. The multiple adverse health effects have to be seen in context with the sheer number of possibly dangerous chemical compounds in tobacco that when oxidized could be extremely toxic.

3. The other additives are unnecessary anyway. For example - Traditionally tobacco was cured with plain old sugar, which burns much hotter than just about anything else. Smoking petroleum products is unlikely to be healthy, either.

4. A product less full of toxic waste can only be safer.

5. Any regulated product can be vetted for risks. (Assuming someone does their jobs, for a change.)

6. Subsidizing organized crime is not a good idea. Really. You’d be surprised, even if you are a politician.

7. I’ll leave out the bit about the contradiction of “not smoking” and inhaling tons of particulate and aerosol pollution. This pollution is a sort of oxidized version of the Periodic Table. Everybody’s smoking about a packet or so every day, anyway.

The better outcome would be a properly produced, pure product, without the additives. There is such a thing, pure tobacco, without the garbage. I’ve seen it myself, direct from the States. It’s not particularly cheap, but it’s at least free of the obvious risks from the horrendous chemistry of conventional cigarettes.

So the choice is stop making billionaires out of criminals, stop making criminals out of citizens, and stop spending a fortune on a failed approach. Smoking is as universal as crystal meth. It’s not going to go away, anymore than the drugs which were banned for generations and simply became universal too.

What’s it going to be? Do something that might work, or something that obviously does not? Or are we all so obsessed with know-nothing politics that real life is no longer an issue? I’m not holding my breath for a rational answer.

This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of